1620, the drapers of Shrewsbury and Oswestry seek to protect their trading privileges

The drapers of Shrewsbury and Oswestry. SP 14/112 f. 72 (1620)

To the right honourable the lords and others of his majesties most honourable previe counsell:

The humble peticion of the drapers of Shrewsbury and Oswestry.

That whereas the peticioners have longe since founded; and for many yeares maynteyned and continued a trade of buyinge Welsh cottons at Oswestry; whereby many thowsandes of poore people in Wales; have ben and yet are daylie sett on worke; and have also ben at greate charges in procureinge severall actes of Parliament, for freeinge the said clothes from seizure; which course of theirs being sought to be ympeached; hath ben hetherto approved and maynteyned by severall orders of this honorable board (wherein the petitioners allwaies acknowledge your lordships favours) untill now of late one Charlton and Harby whoe were persons formerly restrained by your honourable orderes; doe againe labour to intrude themselves into your suppliantes said trade; contrary to the said orders; and to that end have procured the Cittie of London; to countenance theire said intendment; whereuppon the matter comeinge lately to be heard by counsell on all sides; your lordships found noe cause to alter or goe back from the said former orders (soe well and soe longe setled) howbeit your petitioners were then charged with matter of fact; which beinge referred to certen honourable committees; and nothinge materiall there proved against them; they are notwithstandinge constrayned to attend this cause; to theire greate charge.

May it therefore please your lordships further to confirme your said honourable orders; and the rather for that the alteringe and divirtinge of the said trade wilbe the ruine, and decay of his majesties townes of Shrewsburye and Oswestrye; and of many thowsandes of people; whoe are only sett on worke and maynteyned; by the drapers of the said townes; and can noe way be beneficiall to the cittizens of London in generall; but unto a few; whoe not content to have these commodities weekely brought unto them; doe labour to forestal and ingrosse all markettes into theire owne hands; not respectinge the generall good of the countrey: and they (as duty byndeth them) shall daylie pray for your honors preservacions.

Report by Frank Edwards

Most petitioners plea for some alteration, a change in circumstances they will benefit from. These petitioners are unusual. They ask not for change but for the maintenance of the status quo.

The Privy Council

The recipient of this petition, the Privy Council, in origin a body of advisers to the monarch, was by the first decades of the seventeenth century, ‘the prime executive authority of government’, able also to ‘initiate executive or judicial actions of its own’. Its members were drawn from the House of Lords, the House of Commons and chief officers of the royal household. In 1610 they numbered 20, in 1623, 25, although it was not necessary for all members to attend for business to be transacted.  While it could deal with weighty matters of state much of its business was ‘routine, often of a trifling nature’, including for example sifting all petitions to the Crown.[1]  The petitioners were clearly aware of its role, directing their submission to the Council, rather than the King.

The Petitioners

‘Until the era of the Industrial Revolution’ states one historian, ‘wool was, without question, the most important raw material in the English economic system’.[2]  It provided the Crown with a major part of its revenue, through export duties and fines and fees from the enforcement or dispensation of the law relating to purchase or export of wool. It also provided a potentially lucrative living for drapers, merchants engaged primarily in the buying and selling of woollen cloth. This trade was located in many areas of the country including Wales and by 1600 ‘the most powerful element’ in this region were the drapers of Shrewsbury, formed into the Shrewsbury Drapers Company.[3]

The Shrewsbury Drapers Company has a long history. It received its Royal Charter in 1462 and over the next two centuries established significant political and economic influence over the town’s affairs. The strength of its position derived from its almost exclusive right to trade in the local market for woollen cloth. In May 1609 James I re-iterated the Company’s near-monopoly position when he granted ‘the drapers of Shrewsbury … incorporation and confirmation of ancient liberties’.[4] The Company shared its access to the market but only with drapers from Oswestry, Coventry and Whitchurch. Within this group the Shrewsbury drapers were the main players; certainly, more important than the drapers in Oswestry, some sixteen miles away, who ‘hardly stood comparison’.[5]

Oswestry’s significance derived, rather, from its role as the site of the weekly ‘staple’ or official trading centre for local woollen cloth. Wool produced in the region, after cleaning, sorting and carding, was spun, woven into cloth and thickened and stretched before coming to market in Oswestry. Having purchased this cloth at the market the Drapers Company outsourced it for ‘finishing’, whereby the nap was raised and the excess sheared, so producing what was known as Welsh cotton. The Company sold on this finished cloth, almost entirely to the London market, from where it was exported to Europe and beyond. Aside from its brief involvement in the latter stages of cloth production the role of the Company was essentially that of ‘middlemen’.[6]

It cost some £400 to set up as a Shrewsbury draper,[7] a significant sum, but there was no shortage of those wishing to join the Drapers Company. In 1588 it had 66 members, by 1608, 84 and by 1619 107.[8]  With membership came rewards, but their continuance depended on the Company maintaining its hold on the local trade. It had two groups threatening its position. Local weavers ‘saw no reason’ why drapers should come between them and those in London who eventually disposed of the greater part of the cloth. More troublesome, particularly in the first two decades of the century, were ‘interlopers’, ‘persistent and resourceful’ London merchants who, excluded from the market, continuously attempted ‘to short-cut the middlemen and deal directly with the local clothier’.[9]

The culmination of these successive attempts was the prompt for our petition, submitted in 1620, in the broad name of Shrewsbury and Oswestry drapers.

The Interlopers

Nothing is known of any drapers, in either Shrewsbury or Oswestry, who supported the petition.  A little is known of the two disaffected London merchants, named by the petitioners as having previously sought to enter the market and now seeking to do so again.

Robert Charlton (also known as Charleton) was born around 1588 in Whitton, a hamlet in Shropshire, some 30 miles south of Shrewsbury. He died in 1670.[10]  He claimed descent from a wealthy Shropshire family and in 1607 had sufficient resources to buy land near Ludlow, not far from his place of birth.[11] It is possible that he became a member of the Shrewsbury Drapers Company in 1608.[12]  From 1646 (to 1654 at the latest) he was MP for Bridgnorth, a town in East Shropshire.[13] In 1653 he acquired more land in Whitton.[14]  Charlton was a local boy, therefore, who retained his association with the area.  However, it seems likely that any membership of the Drapers Company was short-lived as he also developed a base in London, while pursuing a busy career as an entrepreneur. He is described (maybe erroneously) as a fishmonger from Mincing Lane, London and also (probably more accurately) as a thriving London goldsmith.[15]

Job Harby (also known as Harbie) was born around 1590 in Hertfordshire (or alternatively Northamptonshire). He died in 1663.[16] He, too, was an active entrepreneur, particularly as a member of the Levant Company, established in 1592 and trading primarily in what was then known as the Levantine (what is now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine). He was also a Director of the East India Company.[17]

Job Harby had no obvious link with Shropshire but he and Robert Charlton had a business association from at least 1613 (see below). It seems likely the two met in London, possibly through the Levant Company, where Charlton was also a member.[18]  Their relationship was close enough for Robert, in 1614, to marry Emma, Job Harby’s sister and for the couple to name their only surviving son, Job, after his uncle.[19]  A small tablet on the East wall of the chancel of the Parish Church of St Olave, Hart Street, London, commemorates their marriage.[20]

The events leading to the petition

Conscious of the need to protect their position the Shrewsbury drapers were active in responding to the challenges presented locally and externally.[21] In 1610 the Company sponsored, unsuccessfully, a Bill to limit the actions of potential interlopers. In 1611 it sought the aid of the Privy Council in preventing French merchants from buying cloth at Oswestry. In 1613 drapers of Shrewsbury, Oswestry and Whitchurch complained that Charlton and a Company of French merchants were buying cloth direct and exporting it to France. (Harbie was a member of the French Company; Charlton may have joined later.) The Privy Council asked magistrates in Shropshire and the Borders to investigate. On 16 May, concurring with the magistrates’ recommendations, the Council ruled that the market remain at Oswestry ‘in the same sort as heretofore it has done’ and that ‘merchants and drapers of London and other foreigners’ be ‘restrained from buying’ Welsh cloth in Oswestry, Shropshire and North Wales. The Council also made clear that cloth from Wales was to enter the export market only through London and that London merchants should ‘rest content’ with the continuation of this arrangement.[22]

Undeterred, in August 1613 Charlton and Harby were ‘caught poaching’ for cloth (that is seeking to buy directly).  Brought before the Privy Council to answer their contempt of the decision in May they ‘made a humble acknowledgement of their offence’ and offered ‘many promises and protestations never hereafter to offend in the like kind’. Their contrition was sufficient for the Council to remit and forgive their actions.[23]

The Company’s challenges did not come just from London. In September 1613 the Privy Council received a complaint that the drapers of Shrewsbury, as a Corporation, were excluding other local merchants from the trade. On this occasion the Council found against the Company. It stated its earlier order ‘should not be construed for the advantage of any private Company’.  It did not prohibit anyone from Shrewsbury or ‘in the country thereabouts’ from trading in Welsh cloths, but rather prevented Charlton and other London merchants from intervening. The Council ordered that the Company be advised of this, stating it expected ‘to hear no further complaint’.[24]

In December drapers of Shrewsbury, Oswestry and Whitchurch petitioned the Privy Council with a further complaint that London merchants, interfering in the trade, were undermining the market at Oswestry.  The Council confirmed that the market should remain there. It also received a petition from local carders, spinners, weavers and clothiers objecting to their exclusion from the market. An alliance of London Aldermen, the City Council and French merchants backed the local clothiers (so bringing together the two main threats to the Company). They pointed out that Welsh clothiers, unlike their counterparts elsewhere, were prevented by Shrewsbury ‘hucksters’ from selling in London. They sought the right to buy direct from the clothiers in Oswestry. The Council referred these matters for further investigation. In February 1614 the Council refused any change, reaffirming its order of the previous May.[25]

In 1619 the challenges renewed. A local mercer complained about his exclusion from the market (mercers dealt in fabrics; until usurped by drapers, they had controlled the trade in Welsh cloth). In November the Privy Council ruled that no mercer, or indeed anyone not a draper, should ‘intermeddle in the drapers’ trade of buying cloth at Oswestry’.[26] Meanwhile, in September Thomas Davies, a freeman and draper of London, having become a burgess of Oswestry had begun to trade in Welsh cloth. He subsequently claimed a more general right to trade as a freeman of London. Charlton and Harby were again caught poaching. Then, 132 London merchants circulated a petition asking the Privy Council to reverse the decision of 1613 and open up the trade. The petition gained support from citizens, the Mayor and London Aldermen. Harby was among those who signed.

Shrewsbury drapers could fight their own battles, through the Drapers Company but they now found it useful to form a ‘slight and temporary’ union of convenience with the drapers of Oswestry.[27]  In January 1620 the two groups submitted one petition alleging that Davies operated for London merchants who were exporting directly to France. They submitted a second, the subject petition of this report. Here they cited specifically the actions of Charlton and Harby ‘who do again labour to intrude themselves’ into the trade and referred to the ‘several orders’ of the Privy Council which had ‘approved and maintained’ the local drapers’ position in the face of external challenge (that is, those of 1613, 1614 and earlier in 1619). They asked the Privy Council to reaffirm these orders.[28]  The petition was submitted in the name of Shrewsbury and Oswestry drapers but, given the structure of the industry locally, it is likely the Shrewsbury Drapers Company was its driving force.

The Outcome

The Privy Council now faced a flurry of claims and counter-claims. In response it held a public hearing on 4 February 1620 and referred the matter for investigation. On 11 February the Council found that its orders of 1613, 1614 and 1619, concerning the trade in Welsh cloth, were ‘grounded on many public and weighty considerations’. Confirming these orders, it commanded that they be ‘duly observed and obeyed in all points and respects by all parties’.  On 21 February the Council dismissed the claims of Thomas Davies.[29]

The drapers of Shrewsbury and Oswestry had won the day. In their petition opposing change they expressed concern for the ‘thousands of poor people’ who depended on the clothing industry for a livelihood, for ‘the citizens of London’, for ‘the general good of the country’ even.  Such concerns were almost certainly cosmetic. The status quo had been preserved and it was primarily in the drapers’ interests that this was so. And within the Shrewsbury and Oswestry drapers’ union of convenience, the bigger winners were undoubtedly the Shrewsbury Drapers, established in the Shrewsbury Drapers Company. Despite the succession of challenges from 1613, they had retained their privileged position in the trade in Welsh cloth, more or less unscathed.

However, there was a sting in the tail of the Privy Council’s ruling. In September 1613 it had issued a cautionary warning to the Company and now chose to do so again.  In the hearings on the various claims and counter-claims it was alleged that the Shrewsbury drapers damaged the business of making Welsh cottons ‘by debasing the price in the country, to the prejudice and undoing of the poor clothier’ and then raised the price they sold at in London ‘to the discouragement of the merchant and the decay of the trade in France’.  The Council ‘did seriously admonish’ any drapers guilty of this and instructed there should be no such future manipulation of prices, in Wales or in London. Be warned, said the Council, keep your near-monopoly but take care not to over-exploit it.[30]

Subsequent Events

Threats from local clothiers and London merchants shortly proved to be the least of the drapers’ concerns. Wool prices had begun to fall in the early years of the seventeenth century and from 1618 the industry became severely depressed. By 1622 prices were the lowest for many years.[31]  In 1621, concerned about the prospects for the wool industry but also about wider issues of monopolies and free trade, Parliament passed ‘The Act for Free Trade in Welsh Cottons, Cloths, Friezes etc.’ Because James I adjourned and then prorogued Parliament the Act did not finally become law until 1624. However, on 16 June 1621 the Privy Council, reflecting the expressed but interrupted intention of Parliament, declared that all orders ‘touching the restraint of selling of Welsh cottons shall be withdrawn and of no force’.[32]

Free trade in Welsh cloth, so long resisted by the drapers, had finally arrived.  In the event this was not the damaging development they previously feared. The immediate impact, certainly on the Shrewsbury Drapers Company, was limited, not least because in the economic conditions of the 1620s London merchants were no longer so motivated to seek a share of the trade in Welsh cloths.[33]

For Oswestry, however, there was a more serious change. The location of the market in Oswestry had never suited the Shrewsbury Drapers Company, in part because it introduced a potentially hazardous journey into the cloth-buying process. In 1623, exercising its dominant position in the local industry, the Company moved the market to Shrewsbury itself. The impact on Oswestry as a town was severe. By 1633 it was, according to its Town Clerk, ‘much decayed and impoverished’.[34]

Finally, what of the persistent and resourceful interlopers, Charlton and Harby?  If now less interested in Welsh cloth, both remained active in business, primarily as members of the Levant company but in other guises too. In the 1620s Charlton was one of a number of merchants who sought to open trade with Canada. In the 1630s Harby controlled half of the imported trade from Russia. Both pursued opportunities in Europe, including in the French wine trade.[35]

Excluded from the Welsh cloth trade Charlton and Harby were nevertheless members of the London merchant oligarchy, where the prospective rewards would always be greater. The London business elite was generally a group loyal to the Crown[36] and in the Civil War both were, indeed, nominal supporters of the King. Harby was one of a number of Levant Company members identified as Royalist.[37]  In 1643 Charlton advanced £3,843 to Charles I. In 1661, after the Restoration, he petitioned for the recovery of this sum; whether he got his money back is not known.[38]



[1] J.P. Kenyon, The Stuart Constitution 1603-1688: Documents and commentary (2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 429.

[2] Peter J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (Macmillan, 1962), pp. xv-xvi.

[3] T.C. Mendenhall, The Shrewsbury Drapers and the Welsh Wool Trade in the XVI and XVII Centuries (Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 38.

[4] Mary Anne Everett Green (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Domestic: James I, 1603-1610, (London, 1857), Volume 45, May, June 1609, pp. 507-523, British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/jas1/1603-10/pp507-523.

[5] Mendenhall, pp. 29, 32, 38, 45-6.

[6] ibid., pp. 7-8, 28, 38-39.

[7] Richard Grassby, The Business Community of Seventeenth Century England (Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 84.

[8] ibid., p. 85.

[9] Mendenhall, pp. 40, 146.

[10] ‘Robert Charlton/Emma Harby’, FamilySearch/Genealogies (https://familysearch.org).

[11] ‘Job Charlton’ in Basil Duke Henning (ed.) The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1660-1690 (Secker & Warburg, 1983), Volume II, p. 44. <https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/member/charlton-job-1614-97> This entry relates to Charlton’s son but provides background on Charlton himself.

[12] Mendenhall, p. 151.

[13] Members of Parliament: Parliaments of England 1213-1702 (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1878), Part 1, p. 492. The volume of The History of Parliament: The House of Commons, covering 1640-1660, is in production with an expected publication date of 2020.

[14] Henning (ed.), p. 44.

[15] ibid., p. 44.

[16] ‘Job Harby/Elizabeth Wyche’, FamilySearch/Genealogies (https://familysearch.org).

[17] Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders 1550-1653 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 65, 72 (fn. 58), 78 (fn. 74).

[18] ibid., p. 77 (fn. 69).

[19] ‘Robert Charlton/Emma Harby’, FamilySearch/Genealogies (https://familysearch.org); Henning (ed.), p. 44.

[20] ‘Tower Ward’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in London, Volume 4, the City (London, 1929), pp. 175-186 [BHO: https://www.british-history.ac.uk].

[21] In addition to sources subsequently cited, the following account draws on Mendenhall, pp. 146-59.

[22] E.G. Atkinson (ed.), Acts of the Privy Council of England Volume 33, 1613-1614, (London, 1921),  pp. 9-10, 34-40 [British History Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/acts-privy-council/vol33].

[23] ibid., pp. 191-92.

[24] ibid., pp. 198-99.

[25] ibid., pp. 310-11, 351-55.

[26] J.V. Lyle (ed.), Acts of the Privy Council of England Volume 37, 1619-1621, (London, 1930), pp. 56-58 [British History Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/acts-privy-council/vol37].

[27] Mendenhall, p. 159.

[28] ‘James 1 – volume 112: January 1620’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: James I, 1619-23, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1858), pp. 111-120. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/jas1/1619-23/pp111-120.

[29] Lyle (ed.), pp. 129-30, 138.

[30] ibid., p. 130.

[31] Bowden, p.6; Mendenhall, p. 164.

[32] Lyle (ed.), pp. 396-97; Mendenhall, pp. 164, 170, 189.

[33] Mendenhall, pp. 200-201.

[34] Mendenhall, pp. 29-32.

[35] Brenner, pp. 77 (fn.69), 79 (fn.79), 123 (fn.30).

[36] Lawrence Stone, The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642 (Routledge Classics, 2017), pp. 143, 162-63.

[37] Brenner, p. 375 (fn. 117).

[38] Henning (ed.), p. 44; ‘Charles II – volume 30: February 1-18, 1661’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles II, 1660-1, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1860), pp. 500-512, British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/chas2/1660-1/pp500-512.


This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, 1600-1625’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.